It was another packed library event last Thursday as the Dade Historical Society hosted its Dade Cave Symposium. A panel of local cavers gossiped, reminisced and opined about their life below the county's surface from the 1960s onward. Cavers are a clannish bunch, and dozens of them crawled out from under rocks from all over to support their own, filling the building. Over 80 people attended this latest in the Dade Public Library's daring and varied programs.
Marion Smith (left) was featured speaker for the Sept. 5 forum, and he spoke on his subject of historical expertise, how local caves figured in the Civil War. Caves back then were mined for saltpeter, an important ingredient in the gunpowder needed to keep the bloody conflict raging. The Planet found Smith's essay on the cave saltpeter operation online and you can read it at:
But the human side of history is Smith's particular passion, and he described his historical "graffiti detective" work tracking down the later lives of the saltpeter miners and soldiers who wrote their names on cave walls.
Smith also presented a slide show he'd assembled of the early days of caving in Dade, featuring the "Rockeaters," a 1960s-era band of cavers. Some of them were still around to provide commentary and sat on the "cave panel" put together by organizer Donna Street.
Cave panelists above are, from left, Marion Smith, Marty Abercrombie, Ken Pennington, Jerry Wallace, Kathy Mackay, Steve Davis and Jim Youmans. Pennington was an official Rockeater, and Youmans and Smith were caving in the area contemporaneously. The others began eating rock somewhat later (particularly young Abercrombie who at just over 40 has presumably masticated only desultory pebbles).
One of the aims of the Cave Symposium was to bring the cavers into closer contact with the community at large, and SCCI (Southeastern Cave Conservancy) educator Christine Walkey offered an interesting opportunity in that regard: She invited Dade to explore the beautiful Johnson's Crook area that was not that long ago exploited by unscrupulous developers as The Preserve at Rising Fawn. The Preserve was eventually exposed as a $40 million bank fraud that ended in strings of foreclosures and bankruptcies as well as a federal trial and two key players behind bars.
But where does that leave the Crook? Still in situ and still breathtaking. It's also full of caves, and the SCCI is now in charge of protecting the old Preserve along with a number of other caves it has acquired
through purchase or private donation. Ms. Walkey stressed that local residents who'd like to hike the Crook's trails and ogle its wildflowers are welcome to do so. The only requirement is to fill out a registration form online.
To do that, go to the SCCI's website, scci.org, and pick the Charles B. Henson Preserve at Johnson's Crook. The late Henson was a caver who was concerned about the fate of the Crook's caves during the Preserve at Rising Fawn years, and began buying up land as the fraud began, ahem, caving in.
To learn more about caves and caving, readers may go to the website of the local grotto, or caving club, the Chattanooga Grotto: https://chagrotto.github.io